Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Posted by nliakos on October 20, 2014

by Reza Aslan (Random House 2013)

This is the book I have wanted to read for many years: a book that puts the religious narrative(s) into a historical context. Jesus, Paul, James, Masada, the Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire, the apostles, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Q material, the Bible, Pilate and Herod, and much, much more, all contextualized and explained clearly. Reza Aslan writes forcefully about what we know, what we can reasonably speculate about, what we might hazard a guess about, and what is pure fabrication. When the gospels contradict each other, he muses as to why that is and what it might mean. He cites numerous sources, some modern and others 2,000 years old, to back up his thesis: that the Jesus Christ worshipped by Christians today has little in common with Jesus of Nazareth–the former a god, the latter a man–an uneducated laborer, a revolutionary, and one of a plethora of failed messiahs that lived and died violent deaths around that time (but the only one, Aslan points out, that “would not be forgotten”). As I have long believed, it was Paul (a Jew who apparently came to hate Jews) who created and spread the Christian religion. (Aslan points out that “more than half of the twenty-seven books that now make up the New Testament are either by or about Paul.” p. 215) What Jesus preached, and what his brother James (the Just) preached after him, is completely different from what Paul preached–but Jesus and James were preaching to other Jews, whereas Paul preached to Gentiles, facilitating the spread of his doctrines among the majority of peoples who knew nothing of the Torah and Jewish laws and customs and so were unable to recognize that much of what Paul was preaching would have been anathema to Jesus.  Aslan also shows how Christian anti-Semitism was born after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and historical events were changed to absolve the Romans of responsibility for Jesus’ death–and cast the blame on the Jews. Aslan shows how absurd these allegations actually are.

I learned so much from reading this book! I am looking forward to reading more of Reza Aslan, like Muslims and Jews in America, Beyond Fundamentalism, and No god but God.

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The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad

Posted by nliakos on May 6, 2014

by Lesley Hazelton (Riverhead Books 2013)

Like many people, my knowledge of the life of the Prophet of Islam was limited to a few very vague bits: I knew he had married an independent businesswoman for whom he worked, and I knew that there had been a “flight” from Mecca to Medina. So I was ripe for this biography of Muhammad from veteran journalist and writer Lesley Hazelton. Hazelton wrote the book with people like me in mind: not Muslims, not even believers, necessarily. She makes very clear what is fact, what is historical/cultural background, and what is conjecture about the life of this man who actually changed the world. Drawing on the histories of ibn-Ishaq and al-Tabari as well as the Quran itself as her primary sources, Hazelton weaves the story of Muhammad’s life from conception to death. I learned about his early years as a goatherd, the diverse society in which he lived, the pre-Islamic beliefs and practices which became incorporated into Islam, his transformation from outsider to ultimate insider, and much more. Many thanks to my student Munerah for giving me this book!

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Helen Keller

Posted by nliakos on April 26, 2012

by Dorothy Herrmann (1998, Knopf)

Like most people, I saw The Miracle Worker  but knew little beyond that about the most famous disabled person of the 20th century. When I read Lies My Teacher Told Me, an example of a lie by omission was that of Helen Keller, who lived an active life until she was 87, writing and lecturing about her views of a variety of topics but whose adult life most people are totally ignorant of because (in the author’s view) of her radical politics and unpopular views. Ever since then, I’ve been planning to find out more.

I found Herrmann’s biography very interesting, if sometimes too detailed and somewhat repetitive (she incorporates the life stories of practically everyone in the book; for example, does the reader need to know the tragic details of Samuel Clemens’ life in a biography of Helen Keller? pp. 104-106).  She devotes many pages to the unique relationship between Helen and Annie Sullivan, her “Teacher”, who both controlled her and was controlled by her. Numerous people have argued over which of these women was the more intelligent. Were Helen’s ideas and literary output truly hers? Or were they Annie Sullivan’s. Sullivan guarded her charge against even family members who sought to come between them. According to Herrmann, Annie Sullivan was the only person Helen ever truly loved. (Nevertheless, once when Sullivan was away recuperating from an illness, Helen fell in love with a young man who wished to elope with her, but their plans were foiled and he was prevented from seeing her again. Was the brevity of this affair such that Helen could not be said to have trule loved Peter Fagan?)

Herrmann devotes many pages to Keller’s relationships with other people in her life. She quotes extensively from her books, poems, and letters. The book features numerous photographs of Keller at different ages and with different people (and dogs–she was a great dog lover). Herrmann decries the tight control under which Helen Keller lived all of her life. Her “handlers” (as we would call them now, including her family) wanted to present her to the world as a pure and innocent being uncorrupted by normal human emotions and desires. As a result, she was never allowed normal friendships or love affairs and learned to always present herself as serene, capable, and accepting of her disabilities. She did not permit herself, or was not permitted, to show anger, to make mistakes (Annie Sullivan used to make her retype everything she wrote until it was perfect) or (God forbid) to have sexual feelings for a man. Part of this was the time in which Helen Keller lived (1880 – 1968), and part of it was everyone’s revulsion of disabled people who actually looked disabled. (Helen Keller and her handlers placed great emphasis on looking and dressing very well; for much of her life Keller was photographed only in profile so that people would not see her left eye, which protruded and looked obviously blind.) All of these things made me feel very sorry for Helen Keller. But she was a pioneer, and disabled people today have benefited from her life and work–especially hearing- and/or sight-impaired people.

Interestingly, according to Herrmann, Keller considered her one true disability to be her voice, which throughout her life was unattractive  and difficult to understand, despite her continuous efforts to improve it. Her blindness and deafness were surmountable obstacles in comparison; she did not remember being able to hear or see, but her  “tinny, robotic, and grotesque” voice (( p. 180) prevented her from expressing herself.

Reading this biography has inspired me to read some of Keller’s own works, notably The World I Live In (1908), in which she describes what it is like to be deaf and blind, and to visit the Chapel of Saint Joseph of Arimathea in the National Cathedral here in Washington, D.C, where lie the ashes of Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan Macy, and Polly Thomson, companion to Keller after the death of Mrs. Macy.

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